People Habitat by Kaid Benfield is a must-read for anyone who cares about cities (Book review)

I really should have recused myself from reviewing Kaid Benfield's People Habitat. I am terribly biased, having been reading his daily column at NRDC switchboard and having been profoundly influenced by Kaid's thinking and his writing. I knew before I started writing that it would be a rave review, and it is.

Some of the 25 essays are based on posts available online, but there is also original content, knitted together in a way that adds value. The source post of chapter two, "What seems green may actually be brown", is the essay that made flashbulbs go off inside my head when I first read it years ago and made me a Kaid convert. He applied the latest in online technology (Walkscore and Abogo) to show what has since become obvious: that you can't build exurban sprawl and call it green or sustainable, calling out a supposed "Net Zero" community for being anything but. It sets the tone for the whole book with its lesson that where you build is as important as what you build, that context and community matter more than solar panels.

© Kaid Benfield/ from Chapter 8: Sustainability Requires Attention to Legacy

He also has much to say to the architectural preservation community, understanding that "older buildings and neighborhoods have intrinsic green properties" (while suggesting that we should be more discerning in what we fight to preserve). He understands how fundamental shifts in transportation and building technology has changed the way we live, leading to a society that is less communal, less trusting, more defensive than it used to be:

First, air conditioning. I'm serious. People can spend more time indoors comfortably than they could, say 50 years ago, which means less interaction. How many people sit on their front porches in the evenings now, even if they have them? Second, our addiction to automobiles...."people tend to interact with their neighbours mainly through their windshields"

© Kaid Benfield/ Gallery 6 from Chapter 13: There Must Be a There

I could go on, but will just tease with a few of the more provocative chapter titles, like "Americans don't walk much, and I don't blame them" or "Walk, drink, and walk back", an ode to the neighbourhood bar, or "sustainability is where the heart is."

Planning jargon and archispeak don't cross Kaid Benfield's lips; he talks about smart growth and new urbanism but the word Transect never comes up. It's all just great photographs, a first person conversational style, and a serious dose of common sense, something that is often lacking in our discussions of building sustainable cities. He doesn't go for fads, eschewing the current "density is green" to note that "high density urbanism cannot be our only model if we are to create a world that a diverse spectrum of people want to live in." We have to focus on the quality of what we are building, the amenities that support it, and not just the height.

Lloyd Alter/ Jardin du Luxembourg/CC BY 2.0

I will end with a note about Chapter 6, Cities need nature, in which Kaid looks at the importance of parks, big and small. It turns out that his favourite park in the world, Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, is also mine. I loved it because it actually had movable chairs, that it was a big comfy and friendly living room in the city. It's green, but it is the definition of urbanity.

For me, reading this book was like sitting around a fire talking about city life with an old friend. If you have not read Kaid before, he will quickly feel like an old friend, talking directly from and to the heart, getting to the essence of what makes places that we love and what we can to to make more places like them. The first time I read it I blurbed "These 25 essays are not just about cities; they are about making sense of the way we live." Reading it again, it gets even better.

Read more at the People Habitat website, and here are some of the stories I have written where I am directly influenced by Kaid Benfield or quote him extensively:

Green sprawl is still sprawl, says Kaid Benfield
Kaid Benfield on The Greenest Building Is The One In The Right Context
All You Need Is Love: A Valentine to Steve Mouzon and Kaid Benfield
Why location matters most
When It Comes To Green Building, Where You Are Is As Important As What You Build
How Do You Build A Sustainable Business In A Suburban Sea Of Parking? Sorry, Walmart, You Can't.

Tags: Book Reviews | Cities